Monday, September 01, 2014

Book Review -- 1 Samuel for You

1 Samuel For You by Tim Chester is the fifth installment in the God's Word for You series published by The Good Book Company. As noted in the Preface, the series is intended to provide expository Biblical studies for a broad audience in a manner that is "Bible centered, Christ glorifying, relevantly applied, and easily readable." Each volume is written with three different purposes/audiences in mind: "Read," as a guide to the contents of the Biblical book; "Feed," as a daily devotional, and "Lead," as a resource for preaching and teaching through the Biblical text. The series isn't intended to provide scholarly commentary, and the reader is not expected to have understanding of the Biblical languages or even a high level of Scriptural knowledge. 1 Samuel For You begins with a brief introduction to the book's themes and historical/canonical background, and each subsequent chapter focuses on a 1-2 chapter block of the Biblical text. In addition to examining the details of the specific text, Chester highlights points of connection with other sections of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) and applications for the Christian reader. Each chapter contains questions for further reflection, and the book contains a glossary and Appendices. 

In my review of the series' initial volume (Galatians For You), I noted that author Timothy Keller had set an extremely high bar for the series and that I even pitied authors of subsequent installments. But 1 Samuel For You is every bit as good, and Tim Chester does a magnificent job working within the Read/Feed/Lead format of the series. By far the book's biggest strength is Chester's command of the Biblical text itself. Although the series is intended for a broader audience, Chester does a tremendous job of analyzing the text: not only does he focus on technical details such as uses of chiastic structure or plays on words in the original Hebrew, but he also communicates their significance so as to remain accessible to the layperson. Furthermore, he connects the details in individual verses to the larger context of 1 Samuel. For example, in his opening chapter, Chester argues that the account of Hannah in in 1 Samuel 1-2 is not a mere example of faith in the midst of adversity (as some treat it); instead, this account, especially through Hannah's prayer, introduces the theme of reversals that runs throughout the book, whereby God "humbles and exalts" (2:7), lifting up the poor and needy while silencing the wicked (2:8-9). Throughout the narrative, Chester demonstrates recurrences of this theme, culminating in the tragic fall of the asked-for king Saul and the unexpected ascent of the shepherd boy David to the throne.    

Chester also excels in connecting 1 Samuel to the larger canon of Scripture. For example, he demonstrates how the early chapters of the book present a continuation of the cycle established in the book of Judges, whereby Israel's sin leads to God's judgment, and their repentance results in God sending a deliverer - in this case, Samuel. Furthermore, the repeated refrain in Judges that the people were in disarray because "in those days Israel had no king" at first seems headed towards a positive resolution with Saul, whose ascent to the throne is described with several allusions back to Judges. Yet Saul, despite his kingly station, proves every bit as fallible as previous judges of Israel. More importantly, Chester highlights how the failure of Saul sets the stage for the rise of David to the throne. 1 Samuel, as he notes, is not really about the transition of Israel from the reign of Saul to that of David; rather, it is about the shift from no monarchy to monarchy. Moses had anticipated that Israel would one day have a king (see Deuteronomy 17) -- the question is whether they would choose a king like those of the nations or one of God's choosing. 1 Samuel portrays two different options for how Moses' words could find fulfillment.

Chester not only demonstrates connections between 1 Samuel and the Old Testament, but more importantly, he also shows how David prefigures the coming of Jesus. Not that David is a mere cipher -- on the contrary, 1 Samuel presents him in exemplary terms. Despite his humble origins, he is chosen by God to be king (keeping with the theme of reversals throughout the book). He is repeatedly tested, particularly with the temptation to seize by force the throne that God had already promised to him. Yet David refuses to harm the Lord's anointed and spares Saul's life on more than one occasion. Instead of claiming what is rightfully his, David endures many years of betrayal and suffering before he comes to the throne. Chester masterfully connects these details of David's life with that of Jesus, who surrendered his divine rights and willingly lived "on the margins" and faced rejection and betrayal for the sake of a higher calling. These frequent connections between David's life and the typological fulfillment in Jesus Christ permeate Chester's book; furthermore, Chester draws practical applications for Christian readers of 1 Samuel by demonstrating how this pattern of enduring suffering on the way to glory still holds for followers of Jesus. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed 1 Samuel For You, and I think any Christian reader would be edified by it. Tim Chester does a wonderful job of connecting the book of 1 Samuel to the larger Biblical drama of redemption in a straightforward and engaging manner, doing a particularly good job of demonstrating how the book points to the ultimate fulfillment of God's purposes in Jesus Christ. My only real criticism is the same one I made about Keller's Galatians For You, concerning the Read/Feed/Lead format of the series: I'm still not sure the book succeeds as a one-stop shop for preaching and teaching through the book. I would certainly use it as a resource, but in conjunction with others. That said, Chester offers many keen insights on 1 Samuel concerning both the details of the text and applications for Christian readers, such that teachers and preachers would do well to consult it in their preparations. I guess my only other complaint is that it only covers 1 Samuel -- as Chester notes in the introduction, 1 and 2 Samuel were originally a single volume. I truly hope that Dr. Chester has a 2 Samuel For You in the works! 

(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for writing a review, though without any stipulations on its content.)        

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